Many have likely heard me joke about the fact that, unlike Barack Obama, I actually am a Kenyan-born Muslim. But that’s not the point of this story. This story is about the fact that voting is personal for me — and it should be personal for you, too.
I grew up in Canada, a country to which my family and I immigrated. In 1981, 10 years after my family arrived in Canada and soon after we became citizens, my father ran for office. I was 11 at the time and maybe the hardest-working campaign volunteer he had.
My dad’s candidacy gave voters a choice — a choice he wasn’t able to make as a young man.
Late on Election Day, my dad and I drove home to get ready for the big night. He was going to make history. He was going to become the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to any major office in Canada. When the time came, we got back into the car to drive to the campaign headquarters for the vote counting. We turned the radio on for the 8 p.m. election broadcast. Results would take a while — except for one constituency in which the results were so obvious the ballot counters could declare the result right away. It was my dad’s constituency. We had lost the election before we even reached the campaign headquarters.
It was over, and I was devastated. But my father wasn’t. “Of course we lost,” he told me. “We were never going to win.” When I asked him what it was all for if he knew he was going to lose, he said he ran because he could. And his candidacy gave voters a choice — a choice he wasn’t able to make as a young man.
Unlike me, my parents were born and grew up in South Africa, where my father and his father and his father before him fought the injustice of the racist apartheid regime from the wrong side of the law. Because of the color of their skin — and of my skin — they could never run for election. They couldn’t even vote. Or own land. Or freely express ideas or opinions that differed from the government’s without risk of being thrown in jail or even killed. This is why father saw his candidacy as a choice for voters. What they decided was up to them. And that choice, that vote, is democracy itself.
For Americans, the right to vote is hard-earned, in blood and in jails, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. And yet, only about 55 percent of registered voters in the U.S. typically vote.
In Australia, voter turnout is above 90 percent. But voting is much simpler there; Australians can vote at any polling station in the country, no matter where they’re registered. In addition, voting is compulsory. If you don’t vote, you get fined. Belgium also has a version of compulsory voting, and 87 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in its last national election.
Because of the color of their skin — and of my skin — they could never run for election. They couldn’t even vote. Or own land. Or freely express ideas or opinions that differed from the government’s without risk of being thrown in jail or even killed.
In Canada — as in most other developed countries — a national standard for voting applies across the board. Eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote, and unless someone produces evidence to the contrary at your polling station, you get to vote. The poll worker hands you a paper ballot, folded in a specific way. You walk to a booth and mark your “X” with the provided golf pencil, and you fold the ballot back up. You show your folded ballot to the poll worker, who confirms your vote by signing your ballot, and you drop it into the box. It works. Every time.
America, which boasts of being the world’s freest and fairest democracy, has managed — and some of it is deliberate — to complicate the fundamental underpinning of our democracy in a way that has become a form of voter suppression.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. My dad ran for office because the system couldn’t stop people from making a choice to support the ideas he championed. They couldn’t stop him, and they can’t stop you. You have seven days left to be democracy in action. Go vote.
By the way, my dad ran again in 1987. That time the voters chose him. Like I said: Voting is personal for me.